Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Doom Patrol


Keith Giffen, Matt Clark, John Livesay & others Doom Patrol (2011)
Here's another stack of comics, specifically a run which lasted twenty-two issues before cancellation, and with which I'm only just catching up in 2018. Giffen's version of the Doom Patrol followed on from John Byrne's 2004 version which dispensed with all the weird stuff and started afresh. Infinite Crisis - which I've never read - apparently revised Byrne's revision, meaning Giffen gets to play with Crazy Jane, Arani Caulder, and even characters from the John Arcudi run. He also rationalises Byrne's resurrection of Rita Farr, which is handy because that one decision seemed otherwise a bit crap at the time. Giffen even squishes Grunt and Nudge, both inherited from Byrne, within the first five pages of issue one, which scans as though it was probably at least a little cathartic. Read as a single body of work, this version isn't quite so satisfying as those of Grant Morrison, Gerard Way, or even Giffen's own run on the Justice League, but it's otherwise decent and the art is mostly wonderful.

My only criticisms would be that the narrative occasionally seems to wander into a room and forget what it went in for, and that the additional Metal Men strips - running for the first seven issues in the back of the book - somewhat disrupt the rhythm, at least from the point of view of the reader working his way through a stack of the things piled up on the bedside table. In isolation, Metal Men is very much a thing of great wit and beauty, as you would expect from Giffen once again working with J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, his partners on the aforementioned Justice League. The problem is that it's slow and wordy, each panel crammed with dialogue - albeit wonderfully witty dialogue, visually sharing more in common with Windsor McCay than the caped fare in which it is rooted; and Metal Men is perfect as it is, but nevertheless sits heavily in one's reading stomach after relatively breezy instalments of Doom Patrol. Metal Men probably should have been its own book, except of course no-one would have bought it because it's too ludicrous.

As for wandering into rooms and forgetting what we went in for, I suspect Giffen's admittedly infrequent narrative Condor moments result partially from my never having read Infinite Crisis; which brings me back to the subject of revision, continuity, canon, and so on.

I still don't understand why DC feels the need to reboot every five or so years, and I don't believe that anyone likely to pick up a Batman comic in 2018 is really going to give a shit about the character having been around since 1939, or that Bruce Wayne should logically be a septugenarian by now. I was heavily into Claremont-era X-Men comics at the end of the eighties, before it all went down the crapper; and what made those books so readable - at least for me - was that they felt more akin to a soap than generic caped twats fighting crime; and whilst X-Men may well have been bogged down with continuity, it was the continuity which made it work, which gave the narrative a semblance of plausibility - even just minor details like someone reading a newspaper with a headline about what happened to Iron Man in a different comic, a thousand inconsequential strands of faux cause and effect stretched out across the entirety of Marvel's flimsy three-colour reality, just like the real world with all its loose ends and footnotes that never quite add up. The idea that Cyclops should have been in his fifties because he'd hung out with beatniks at the Coffee A Go-Go as a teenager in those early issues simply didn't matter because all of the heavy-lifting was done by the story; which in turn brings me to why I was never entirely sold on DC comics.

Shortly after discovering Marvel, and then Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, I picked up other DC books from the newsagent just to see what they were about. Blue Devil was funny, but that was about it for me. Even in the eighties, most of what I saw felt like a throwback to the sixties or earlier - corny as fuck supertypes throwing on a garish leotard and deciding to fight crime with a sprinkling of generic angst for the sake of texture, the sort of problems you imagine grown-ups must encounter if you're about eight. Most of it made Jim Shooter's Marvel look like Jean-Paul Sartre. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and many of these issues of Doom Patrol showcased sample pages from whatever else DC was publishing at the time - Magog, Teen Titans, innumerable Batman variations, the Flash, plus there's an issue of Secret Six I picked up because the story crosses over with Doom Patrol - and it all looks fucking awful, like they've just about caught up to the seventies, but the worst of the seventies and with shittier art. Maybe that's why they keep rebooting all the time, having failed to realise that Alzheimer's Superman isn't actually the problem. There's not much point giving Blue Beetle a cellphone and a facebook account if the calendar is otherwise still stuck at around half past 1974. This would mean that the good stuff - Doom Patrol, Giffen's Justice League, and a couple of Vertigo titles - have been exceptions proving the rule, which is probably why the good stuff keeps getting cancelled: because the readership would rather have shite like Secret Six or Harley Quinn*.

Oh well. I suppose that's just how it goes.

*: I acknowledge that this criticism is founded upon my never having read a single issue of Harley Quinn, but frankly it looks fucking wank, like DC attempting to cross Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl with that bloody awful Insane Clown Posse comic book that came out back in 2000, drawn by someone who presumably regarded Todd McFarlane's Spawn as the greatest story ever told; and Tank Girl was also pure shite while we're on the subject.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Cemetery World


Clifford D. Simak Cemetery World (1973)
This one feels a little like a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, the somewhat ponderous A Choice of Gods. That which Cemetery World is trying to say, or at least what I suspect it tries to say, is clearer than in A Choice of Gods, and the novel feels more fully realised, although it suffers to some extent from the same somber tone and narrative uncertainty. Simak has stated that he's often making it up as he goes along, but his books rarely feel quite so prone to improvisation as that might imply.

Here we have an artist, a human citizen of the universe, visiting an Earth long since abandoned and returned to wilderness, but for a few hillbilly types and a powerful funerary organisation which facilitates burial on the planet of our ancestors. Fletcher Carson, our artist, finds himself at odds with the Cemetery corporation, and improbably allied with ghosts, robots, and possibly the Census Taker, who seems to have provided the inspiration for Orko, the floating wizard thing from He-Man & the Masters of the Universe.

As with much of Simak's fiction, pastoral themes dominate, specifically the return to nature. Cemetery World distinguishes itself by granting that nature has its own agenda, regardless of our good intentions; and so Earth has moved on in our absence.
 
'We're Babes in the woods,' she said. 'You remember the old Earth fairy tale, of course.'

'Sure, I remember it,' I said. 'The birds came with leaves…'

And let it go at that. For the tale, when you came to think of it, was not as pretty as it sounded. I couldn't quite remember, but the birds, it seemed to me, had covered them with leaves because they were quite dead. Like so many other fairy tales, I thought, it was a horror story.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's certainly far from cosy, making for a slightly darker, more pensive read than one usually gets with Simak.

'I should have wondered too,' he went on, 'by what criterion one should select the experiences to be packaged. Would it be wise to pick only the joyful ones or should one mix in a few that are somewhat less than joyful? Perhaps it might be well to preserve a few that carried a keen embarrassment, if for no other reason than to remind one's self to be humble.'

The message is ultimately a pleasantly simple and direct affair, although lacking the playful surrealism of earlier novels, its delivery is perhaps less satisfying than it might have been. Still, Simak is always worth a look so I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Stay Crazy


Erica L. Satifka Stay Crazy (2016)
This one came to me in mysterious ways, a Christmas present picked from an Amazon wish list to which I have no recollection of having added it - and yet patently I must have done unless the book just came looking for me, which would at least be appropriate given the story. The strap-line on the cover invokes Philip K. Dick, and for the right reasons for fucking once. Stay Crazy is thankfully lacking rain-soaked male models cinematically experiencing existential crisis in blue and orange, and although there's an obvious parallel in Emmeline's relationship with the possibly unreal Escodex, this is, above all, solid blue collar science-fiction ingrained with the grit and crap and kipple of daily existence, madness, and all points between. Additionally, as with Dick, there's a whole heapin' helpin' of wit without anyone feeling the need to crack jokes or wink at the reader.

Stay Crazy is about a possibly average young woman working at what may as well be Walmart whilst wrestling imperatives dished out by incorporeal alien forces and taking forms pertaining loosely to paranoid schizophrenia. Having known what occasionally seems like more than my fair share of those patrolling the perimeter fence of their own sanity, and having served at least two decades in blue collar limbo, I'm very much familiar with the territory of Stay Crazy, and its attention to prosaic detail is powerful. Somebody or other, possibly Robert Dellar, observed that mental illness might usefully be regarded as an inevitable consequence of late capitalism - an unfortunately legitimate response to unreasonable pressure - which this novel seems to illustrate, if not actually explain. Everyone here is coping, or barely coping, with the obligation and expectation of friends, family, church, society, and consumerism itself, with the dynamic externalised as an invasion or intrusion from elsewhere. So Stay Crazy may not actually explain why people sometimes flip out and perform inexplicable atrocities, but it contains most of the clues you'll need if you genuinely give a shit about the problem; and all disguised as a right rivetting read. I'd say it was VALIS filtered through Buffy the Lucrative Entertainment Franchise, except it's more it's own thing - more lucid than most of Dick's writing, more heart, and with less pouting than any of that vampire crap.

This is one hell of a debut novel.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Le Morte d'Arthur


Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte d'Arthur volume one (1485)
I spent two whole weeks on this one and still only made it to Book VIII, and that's of the nine books assembled in this collection, which is only the first volume. I really don't like giving up on a book, and it's not something I do very often, but considering all of the things I could read from which I might get something, there simply didn't seem to be much point forcing myself. It's not that I found Le Morte d'Arthur impenetrable, because I've read and enjoyed plenty of material of similar vintage. It's not even that it was necessarily either boring or completely lacking anything I found interesting.

That said, I've never been particularly gripped by Arthurian legend in a general sense, at least not until Philip Purser-Hallard's Devices trilogy. Prior to that, it made for a decent Monty Python film but was otherwise - so far as I'm concerned - just one of those things upon which hippies and new age types tended to fixate, and usually the very worst kind of hippie or new age type. I'm thinking here of a specific individual, author of all sorts of dubious Shamanic material with a particular interest in Camelot last seen ranting about how them muzzies are killing our kids but we ain't even allowed to say nuffink because of political correctness innit. What a lovely day that wasn't.

Philip Purser-Hallard convinced me there was something interesting there, so I began working my way backwards. I didn't really get on too well with The Once and Future King, and so assumed I probably needed to go right back to the source. Anyway, it turns out that even Le Morte d'Arthur isn't it, but is rather a number of earlier vaguely related works retold and welded together by someone who lived very near where my father grew up five hundred years or so later.

As I got started, I began to wonder how much of this material might be historical, because it has the feel of something historical. Page after page of knights engaging with other knights reminded me of similarly repetitive passages in Mexican texts of roughly the same era, culturally speaking, and equivalent scraps in their texts tend to serve as metaphor for broader dynastic or regional conflict. Along similar lines, the passage describing competition between opponents identified only as a green, red, or black knight suggested a symbolic record of something which may actually have happened; but whatever the case may be, a quick pog at J.R. Green's A Short History of the English People convinced me of Arthur's entirely mythical composition, there being very few corners of the historical record into which one might shoehorn all that stuff about Camelot. So page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping was presumably written for an audience who enjoy page after page after fucking page of lists of knights scrapping.

Certain passages hold the attention, whereas others tend towards repetitive examples of chivalry, swearing of oaths, loyalty, true love, breasts heaving with admiration for something of a generally chivalrous nature; and I am reliably informed that there are jokes in this text, but I'm fucked if I was able to spot any. What with all the noble brows held aloft and swearing fealty to someone a bit kingy, reading this was like listening to an early Laibach album with a playing time of two weeks; and so I suspect this sort of thing may be what Cervantes was taking the piss out of when he wrote Don Quixote. I suppose it might be said that I'm simply too thick to appreciate Malory, but fuck you - I breezed through the two volume Oklahoma edition of Codex Chimalpahin without breaking a sweat, and I really think this one is just a bit of a dud unless you have some hardcore investment in the subject.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Going on the Turn


Danny Baker Going on the Turn (2017)
Back when I began the journey described here - if you'll forgive my trotting out such a wanky analogy as journey a second time - I did so informed by certain unspoken criteria for what I would review, and what I would not review. I began with my focus set upon science-fiction, a focus which has expanded over the years to incorporate other expressions of fiction and even non-fiction, at least where I felt I had something worth saying about whatever it was I'd just read. Here and there would be the occasional book which I'd enjoyed, but which didn't inspire thoughts much beyond that I'd enjoyed it, in which case I wouldn't bother writing, simply because I had nothing useful to add.

I don't tend to read much in the way of celebrity autobiographies, and in any case they are mostly pitched some distance beyond the sort of thing I would usually write about; but I have to make an exception for Danny Baker. I found myself reading the first two volumes of his memoirs as light relief whilst bored shitless by two of Dostoyevsky's more popular insomnia remedies. This time it's Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which has driven me to seek comfort in something immeasurably more stupid. Where previously I snuck reviews of Baker's books into those of the Dostoyevsky titles which had provided their parentheses, this time - fuck it - Going on the Turn deserves its own spot.

One aspect I've found mildly off-putting about Danny Baker's memoirs is the occasional sentence reminding me of a footballer's autobiography, although I suppose that's inevitable given all the famous people he's knocked around with; but on the other hand, his writing, unnecessarily baroque though it often is, is intensely readable and enormously entertaining, and I'm beginning to wonder if the dissonance is something to do with how accustomed I've been to hearing sentences of similar construction coming out of a speaker, because it's nearly impossible to read his writing without hearing it read aloud by one's own inner Danny Baker. So in other words, this objection, vague though it is, may in fact be bollocks.

On a series of more positive notes, Baker has led a fascinating life and relates it in as much detail as you could ever require whilst eschewing cliché and only ever digging you in the ribs if it's warranted; although admittedly it's warranted quite a bit. This one for example reduced me to tears:

This doesn't spring from some bullish empiricism or the desperate desire to show that I am a no-nonsense sort of chap. Indeed, may the record show I am, if anything, an all-nonsense sort of chap. That this book begins with me behind locked toilet doors seeking to commune with other dimensions should indicate what a restless mind I have when dealing with the unknown. Consider also, that when I first arrived on television I was asked by a popular magazine to be the subject of one of those all about me Q&A features, and under the enquiry, what is your preferred choice of hat? I replied, a puffed-up turban with a large question mark on it. There, if that doesn't identify me as an eternal seeker of truth then I don't know what does.

As with the persona projected through his radio shows, Baker comes across as someone you root for, someone you'd like to hang out with. He hams it up to a preposterous degree and yet never loses the common touch, which is fairly extraordinary when you think about it.

This is possibly his best yet, and perhaps the funniest despite being the one which deals with both cancer and the death of his father in appalling detail. More importantly - providing we're agreed that once the chuckles have subsided, some things are important - like its predecessors, Going on the Turn records the last of a once thriving working class London. I didn't grow up in London, but I lived there long enough to feel part of it. I know most of the places Baker talks about, and I recognise a fair few of the characters. In some sense it makes for upsetting reading, this being a record of something which is fading, and which will soon be mostly just branches of Starbucks filled with braying pricks, but then I suppose nothing lasts forever.

For something which invokes Laurel & Hardy, Vivian Stanshall, and the general spirit of Bugs Bunny to the extent which this book does, Going on the Turn is rich, satisfying, and surprisingly profound. Given the opportunity, Sir Thomas Malory could have learned a lot from this; and I'm absolutely serious when I say that in some respects, a book such as this may one day be at least as important as Pepys' diaries.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Nemo: River of Ghosts


Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill Nemo: River of Ghosts (2015)
This isn't quite Alan Moore's absolute final work in the comic book medium, but it's probably close enough as to make little difference now that he's retiring in hope of dedicating more time to anything which isn't Batman; and like The Roses of Berlin, it seems to constitute a farewell of sorts, or at least is about its own status as the end of a road. As for Moore moving on...

I am sure there is probably a very good reason for the hundreds of thousands of adults who are flocking to see the latest adventures of Batman, but I for one am a little in the dark for what that reason is. The superhero movies - characters that were invented by Jack Kirby in the 1960s or earlier - I have great love for those characters as they were to me when I was a thirteen-year-old boy. They were brilliantly designed and created characters, but they were for fifty years ago. I think this century needs, deserves, its own culture. It deserves artists that are actually going to attempt to say things that are relevant to the times we are actually living in. That's a long-winded way of me saying I am really, really sick of Batman.

Here we have an aging Nemo facing death, a woman whose past constitutes a river of ghosts, so to speak; and she's still fighting the immortal Ayesha from H. Rider Haggard's She, whose immortality prevails thanks to Nazis, Rotwang, and various nasties borrowed from elsewhere, fictional and otherwise.

Let us continue with our tour. Doctor Mengele will next present his biological facility… where we create all you younger versions of previous legends.

See, that's probably a metaphor for the fact that even in 2018, we still haven't tired of reinventing Spiderman. There's a bit of a contradiction here in that this refutation of the endless recycling of culture is itself formed of recycled culture, albeit from discontinued lines; and if the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was ever a genuine reinvestment in storytelling as art rather than commodity, then it might be argued that it's all relative and Nemo is only a more artisanal* Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice served on square plates and washed down with real ale decanted into one of those Mason jars with a handle stuck to it. Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this one. Maybe that's why Moore is moving on.

Anyway, River of Ghosts is fun, as you would probably expect, not least for the inclusion of Hugo Hercules - the first cartoon superhero, it has been suggested, therefore folding the history of this particular genre into a neat ouroboros but for the fact of it being hard to avoid reading him as Desperate Dan. References to obscured or partially lost realms of fiction are as thorough as ever, or exhausting as ever depending upon how you look at it. As Nemo reports, I'm told that this is their last breeding colony, I turned the page, and there they all were - the Creatures from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 Universal movie with curious predictability, which suggests we may have run this idea into the ground by this point. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

*: I apologise to each and every reader for my use of this word.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Notes from Underground


Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from Underground (1864)
I didn't really get on with Crime and Punishment, and I bought this on the grounds of having heard of it and that Dostoyevsky must have written something to deserve all that reputation. It turns out that Notes from Underground is actually pretty slim, so it's fairly common to find it collected with other material as is the case here, and which presented the additonal appeal of containing shorter and hopefully snappier examples of whatever the fuck he was trying to say.

I got a little more out of it than Crime and Punishment, but otherwise I think I've learned my lesson. Here we have four tales from different periods of Dostoyevsky's life serving to illustrate an almost autobiographical narrative. Specifically, Dostoyevsky was subjected to a mock execution by tsarist authorities who regarded him as a subversive in 1849, then sent off to the stripey hole for the next eight years, all of which somewhat soured his view of humanity and his own initial idealism. We are afforded insight into the views of the young Dostoyevsky in White Nights, then his time in prison in selections from the autobiographical The House of the Dead, then Notes itself, concluding with The Dream of a Ridiculous Man which charts his descent into something resembling misanthropy.

The excerpts from The House of the Dead seem the most illuminating, and I found the most interesting, mostly consisting of straightforward reportage of the lives and crimes of those with whom Dostoyevsky shared a prison lavatory. The accounts are conversational, sober, and the crimes detailed are allowed to speak for themselves without any wringing of hands or pulling of faces, which is what spoils the rest of this material for me. It's nothing like so cloying or sentimental as Dickens, and the narrative often seems to actively resist the possibility with its focus on ugliness, contradiction, and self-loathing, its continuous refutation of idealism; but in the absence of light relief, it all becomes a little exhausting after a while. I suppose our man may have been attempting to communicate some purity of vision, albeit through grey-tinted spectacles, in encouraging us to dislike him as much as he seemingly disliked himself, but I found the effect unconvincing. White Nights was written prior to the author's time in prison, before the disillusionment had properly settled in, and strives to build drama from simpering acquaintances who wouldst be lovers but for something dull to do with somebody's grandmama, or maybe a fancy cake or some purloined napkins, that kind of thing. Anyway, the point is that White Nights is excruciatingly precious and juvenile, and after reading it I couldn't keep myself from seeing Dostoyevsky as an overly earnest upper class art student who follows you around quoting William Blake or snatches of Jim Morrison lyrics whilst trying his hardest to smoulder in a generally meaningful way; which is a shame because The House of the Dead at least seems to be worth a look, judging by what we have here. As a collection, this is not without merit, but it's a little chewy in places, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea takes us to more or less the same destination in a much better book.

Funnily enough, perhaps in obediance to some obscure cosmic principle, last time I read Dostoyevsky I found myself toggling between Crime and Punishment and the first volume of Danny Baker's memoirs for the sake of light relief; and having picked up this one, the universe has somehow conspired to furnish me with a copy of Going Off Alarming (2014) just as I really needed to read something which wasn't a nineteenth century Russian bloke punching himself in the face for two-hundred pages. I only noticed the coincidence once I'd finished Notes. Maybe there is such a thing as the anti-Dostoyevsky and it's Danny Baker, a man who doesn't do dark and whom it may be useful to regard as the human analogy of Bugs Bunny, for the sake of argument. As with Going to Sea in a Sieve, Baker's narrative style is very much rooted in the spoken form, seeming occasionally uncomfortable on the printed page with infrequent swerves into footballer's autobiography territory when I opened the door and who should be stood there but my famous friend, Ray Reardon, the snooker champion…

 


Complaining about this would define me as an idiot, so I won't. The great strengths of Going Off Alarming - aside from it not being written by Dostoyevsky - are that it's erudite, funny as fuck, and stuffed with all manner of unexpected and peculiarly tender insights, notably those pertaining to Paul Gascoine - which probably say more about the human condition than anything in Notes. It also makes me quite nostalgic for Deptford and the company of dockyard types.